Last week, the Department of Justice released its report about the Albuquerque Police Department’s use of force practices, which have been much in the news lately.
Last month, APD officers shot and killed James Boyd, a mentally ill man who was involved in a standoff with officers that was captured on one officer’s helmet cam. Video of that shooting has sparked considerable controversy about the APD’s apparent tendency toward using excessive force, even against people who posed little or no direct threat to officers.
Video: APD releases HelmetCam footage of shooting
The DOJ’s investigation, initiated in 2012, takes a broader look at the department’s overall practices. Its conclusions are direct, damning, and represent just the type of straight talk and analysis necessary to begin the process of bringing APD into compliance with the law and with the best interests of New Mexico citizens.
As it turns out, concerns about the Boyd shooting may just be the tip of the iceberg in terms of improper use of deadly force by APD officers. According to the DOJ report (PDF):
Albuquerque police officers too often use deadly force in an unconstitutional manner in their use of firearms. To illustrate, of the 20 officer-involved shootings resulting in fatalities from 2009 to 2012, we concluded that a majority of these shootings were unconstitutional. Albuquerque police officers often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others. Instead, officers used deadly force against people who posed a minimal threat, including individuals who posed a threat only to themselves or who were unarmed. Officers also used deadly force in situations where the conduct of the officers heightened the danger and contributed to the need to use force. (emphasis added)
The use of less-than-lethal force by APD officers was little better. According to the report, officer misconduct in this area represented a pattern of abuse that was described as “systemic.” A lack of effective training, policy development, and appropriate oversight all contributed to incidents of improper use of force in a wide range of situations, including against those involving mentally ill suspects and defendants.
Justice Dept. accuses Albuquerque PD of ‘unjustified force’
In their overall summary of findings regarding the APD, the DOJ had this to say:
We have reasonable cause to believe that officers of the Albuquerque Police Department engage in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including unreasonable deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment….
The report provides a number of examples in support of its claim that excessive force was used by APD officers. Many of these involved the use of Tasers and other less-than-lethal weapons that were deployed in ways that were improper, harmful, and unnecessary.
For example, one case involved a 60-year-old man, initially armed with a knife, who had made a threat against another man while intoxicated. The APD sent 47 officers to the scene, shot the man with five “bean bag” rounds, launched a flash bang grenade at him, shot him with a wooden baton round, deployed a police canine against him, then tased him repeatedly until he collapsed. All of that happened after he had dropped the knife.
A judge, who later reviewed the case, wrote that:
“…no reasonable person could believe that an inhibited, slow-moving, 60-year-old individual, who made no physical or verbal threats, and wielded no weapons, could constitute a threat to the safety of any of the forty-seven armed and shielded police officers who stood over twenty feet away.”
In another incident detailed in the report, officers tased and physically assaulted a mentally disabled man who was literally incapable, due to his disability, of complying with APD officer’s commands. As it turned out, the man had wandered away from a group home where he had been living. He had the mental capacity of a five-year-old child.
APD officers also tased and assaulted individuals who were incapacitated due to a drug overdose, or who were so intoxicated that they were proned out on a couch unable to move, or so mentally ill that they were not capable of rational thinking or decision making. In one case, officers were called simply to check on the welfare of a mentally ill young man, who had done nothing illegal, and ended up kicking, choking, and arresting him after he declined their attempts to interact with him, which he had every right to do.
DOJ Investigates APD
Example after example makes clear that the APD is not a police force in any sense, but an aggressive, out-of-control, occupying force bent on imposing its will on the citizenry, even upon the law-abiding citizens in their jurisdiction. The DOJ report goes on to document factors, such as the lack of effective training for officers, a lack of oversight by supervisors and other leaders in the organization, failure to properly document use of force incidents, including very serious ones, such as shootings – all of which contributed to a culture of violence and illegality in the APD.
As part of the background for this report, the DOJ offered up this succinct statement that summarizes my personal feelings about policing in general:
A well-functioning police department has the trust of the residents it protects, functions as a part of the community rather than insulated from it, and cultivates legitimacy when the public views it as engaging with them fairly and respecting the rule of law.
Police departments are not separate from the communities they serve. They do not exist to control the population. Police departments are integral elements of community life that exist for the sole purposes of protecting and serving the citizenry. They are under the direct control of duly elected representatives, and they are fully accountable to the community and anyone who visits or travels there.
The DOJ report provides a starting place for rectifying the deep and systemic flaws in the APD. It also serves as an object lesson for police departments everywhere that wish to avoid descending into the type of embarrassingly autocratic, overly aggressive, and flagrantly illegal behavior demonstrated by the APD.
Read the full report for yourself here, and leave a comment below.